William James —
One Daring Act a Day

Do every day or two something for no other reason than that you would rather not do it, so that when the hour of dire need draws nigh, it may find you not unnerved and untrained to stand the test.

William James, "Habit"
Screen shot 2011-02-20 at 10.07.56 PM

I’ve gone skydiving, climbed Kilimanjaro, and lived in Cuba, but none of these acts feel as daring as starting this website.

Political philosophy professors like me have a strict code of conduct. We’re supposed to teach the classic texts in classrooms with desks and white boards. We’re supposed to write in peer-reviewed journals and speak at professional conferences with acronyms that sound like military combat controls: APSA, WPSA, MPSA, APA.

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The idea of living philosophically – of using life as a testing ground for ideas – is viewed as quite simply insane.  Nowadays, most philosophy is about rigorous logical argument, not living well.

So what better way to kick off Life Beyond Logic than with William James’ call in his essay “Habit” that we do one daring act a day.

This week’s experiment – do one act each day “for no other reason that you would rather not do it.”

This might sound like a mildly masochistic experiment but James had a good reason for encouraging us to take such daily detours out of our comfort zone.   Like Aristotle, James saw human behavior as resulting from habit.

Most habits serve us.  They streamline our actions, making us more efficient.  When I jump on my bike, for example, a lifetime of habits help me balance, shift gears, and brake with almost no conscious thought.  Without these habits, each bike ride would be like a five-year-old’s first time out on two wheels.  It would involve training wheels, a cheering section of friends and family, and the occasional face plant into the bushes.

But not all habits increase efficiency.   Smoking, drinking, drugs, over- or under-eating – these kinds of habits hurt, rather than, help us.   Bad habits also arise in relationships.  Gossip, blaming, angry outbursts, resentment, or complaining – these reactive emotional habits drain our energy and the energy of those around us.

James’ good news – we can transform bad habits into good ones.  Like contemporary neuroscientists, James saw the habits of our nervous system as plastic – “weak enough to yield to an influence, but strong enough not to yield all at once.”  Translation:  through conscious practice, James saw that we could change our brain and nervous system to shift out of bad habits.

Here’s the idea – habits are like superhighways running through the brain and the nervous system.  Without awareness, our actions will quickly follow the high-speed route of habit.  But through practice, James thinks we can exit the superhighway – we can drive on the smaller, less efficient, side roads.   And the more we drive these side-roads – the more we begin to create new roads of thought and action – the easier it becomes to shift off the superhighway of bad habits.

So for James, doing one daring act a day offers a training in emotional and physical off-roading.   The more we shift out of our comfort zone, the more skilled we become at transforming bad habits into good ones.

James paints a rosy picture of our ability to shift out of deeply ingrained habits.  So I plan to test it for myself.  This week I will live according to his habit-busting method.  I will do one daring or uncomfortable act each day and see whether my capacity to shift bad habits into good improves.  I’ve already got a few ideas — jump in the freezing cold pacific ocean (I have an intense aversion to being cold), wear a business suit all day (I hate dressing up), and spend a day loitering around a local shopping mall (spending hours in front of JCPenney’s feels like death to me).

Please join me and keep me posted on your experiences.  You can leave comments on this page.  By “liking” Life Beyond Logic on Facebook, you can also leave comments and post videos or pictures on our Facebook page.

Update: Thoughts from the Week
posted February 26, 2011 by Nate

James describes this practice of doing one daring thing each day as a form of insurance:  “it is like the insurance which a man pays on his house and goods. The tax does him no good at the time…But if the fire does come, his having paid it will be his salvation from ruin.”

During the week, I experienced this first-hand.  Each time I did a daring act, I could feel resistance in my body and mind.  I felt a rush of adrenaline and my heart racing.  Each time I did an uncomfortable act (like hanging out at Walmart), I felt a less intense but longer-lasting form of resistance.  It felt like boredom tinged with discomfort and a bit of disorientation.

I came to see that James doesn’t recommend daily doses of this kind of resistance because he’s a masochist.  He recommends engaging in such unnecessary acts because he wants us to strengthen our capacity for enduring discomfort.  He sees that any attempt to shift out of bad habits often brings up fear, disorientation, discomfort, and other forms of resistance.  So to master the art of habit-shifting, we must also master the art of remaining calm when experiencing this kind of resistance.

I’ll leave you with one last quote from James about the benefits of this practice: “So with the man who has daily inured himself to habits of concentrated attention, energetic volition, and self-denial in unnecessary things. He will stand like a tower when everything rocks around him, and when his softer fellow-mortals are winnowed like chaff in the blast.”

Update: Video From the First Three Days
posted February 24, 2011 by Nate

Here’s a short video about the first three days of the William James Experiment.  I’m dying to hear about what happened for you.  Let me know by leaving comments here or on the Life Beyond Logic Facebook page.

Responses

  1. The idea of making “daring” a habit reminds me of this article I loved in the New York Times about “courage:”

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/04/science/04angier.html?_r=1&pagewanted=1

    Neuroscientists studied three groups of military parajumpers. “The work revealed three basic groups: the preternaturally fearless, who displayed scant signs of the racing heart, sweaty palms, spike in blood pressure and other fight-or-flight responses associated with ordinary fear, and who jumped without hesitation; the handwringers, whose powerful fear response at the critical moment kept them from jumping; and finally, the ones who reacted physiologically like the handwringers but who acted like the fearless leapers, and, down the hatch. These last Dr. Rachman deemed courageous, defining courage as ‘behavioral approach in spite of the experience of fear.’ By that expansive definition, courage becomes democratized and demilitarized, the property of any wallflower who manages to give the convention speech, or the math phobe who decides to take calculus.”

    Making courage a habit is what the most brave among us — firemen, policemen, aid workers, soldiers — do every day. We’d do well to learn from them, if even if it’s just pushing out limits by jumping in the cold ocean once in a while.

    • Nate Klemp says:

      Dara,

      This is such a great point. It seems to me that most of us fall in the two hand wringing-groups (I know I do anyway). What that says to me is that we have a choice — back down in the moment of intense fear or face it and move forward. Thanks for this!

  2. Peggy Hellman says:

    I am so excited to see you emerging via the website leap Nate! Whoo hoo!! I appreciate the push out of my habits.

  3. Suzanne Teale says:

    Hi Nate,
    I really enjoyed your message in this first exposure to your website. It really hit home for me since tonight I volunteered to help out at a Wheat Ridge task force meeting in which I will speak first and introduce the guest speaker. I really don’t like standing up in front of people and speaking but I figured if I made myself do this enough it may become easier for me.

    Thanks and good luck with the website,
    Suzanne

    • Nate Klemp says:

      Suzanne, thanks for your message. I love that the timing worked out so perfectly and that you had a chance to “do something you would rather not do.” I think you’re right — establishing new habits may be challenging but, eventually, it may make even the most stressful experiences easy.

  4. Drew Lynch says:

    There seems to be a curious parallel between what James is saying and Nietzsche’s thoughts on “brief vs. enduring” habits. Nietzsche encourages brief habits as a way to become acquainted with a myriad of things and states. It seems James request to engage in an activity you normally would not, fosters this same sort of dynamism.

  5. Alex Fraser says:

    What an amazing challenge. It’s dudes like you and Duzer that remind me how much life there is to be lived every day. Here’s to finding the beauty at the end of the emotional and physical dirt-roads mentioned above…I’m in.

    • Nate Klemp says:

      Alex, thanks so much for your enthusiasm. I’m appreciating how doing something you would rather not do opens up a new world of experience and aliveness. My hope is that each week’s experiments will open up similar experiences!

  6. Diana Chapman says:

    Nate, I love your writing style! It’s so digestible, practical and I am thrilled to hear about your own experience which I think is going to be a very valuable aspect of your teaching. Cheers to you, I am so very excited to read more.

  7. Devon Walker says:

    “Without awareness, our actions will quickly follow the high-speed route of habit. But through practice, James thinks we can exit the superhighway – we can drive on the smaller, less efficient, side roads. And the more we drive these side-roads – the more we begin to create new roads of thought and action – the easier it becomes to shift off the superhighway of bad habits.”

    This seems to be the most important point of our discussion about habits. The idea of awareness seems to be the one of the most important parts about personal development in philosophical terms. What is a philosopher if not one who uses awareness to examine himself and the world around him?

    While our habits may have their evolutionary utility. It seems that society itself is at least partially based on the “citizen” streamlining such habits. Take for example things like social norms extending from disney idea of romantic love and “proper” etiquette to uniformity in business, such as the definition of “business casual” or the idea of franchises ect cetera. In order to prosper within these norms, the standard seems to require skills based on the habituation that james talks about getting rid of. Thinkers like Emerson say that this can only be changed from within.

    I agree that this personal struggle must be a component to any break with habituation, however the question must be asked about the value of deconstructing our societal habits. Is that the ultimate goal? Even this website and Nate’s endeavor point towards this change in societal habituation.

    Furthermore I will suggest that the first step to any of this is awareness. That the value of this week’s experiment hinges on the consciousness of the act, rather than the act itself. What do you guys think? It seems to me that Dostoyevsky would have something to say on this matter.

    • Nate says:

      Devon,
      Thanks for such a thoughtful comment. I agree that awareness is key in all of this. I think that James is implicitly saying this as well. Part of the reason for breaking out of routine — of doing one thing we would rather not do — is to create a kind of altered state of awareness. I’ve noticed this throughout the week as I do my daring acts. The moment that I break out of habit, I feel somehow more connected to the experience of the present moment. There’s an aliveness and intensity that starts to arise from stepping out of habit. So I think you’re right — it’s all just about shifting states of awareness: from what Thoreau would call the sleeping state to what he likes to call awakeness.

    • “The moment that I break out of habit, I feel somehow more connected to the experience of the present moment. There’s an aliveness and intensity that starts to arise from stepping out of habit.” Very true and amazing how the brain and body have adapted and evolved to conserve energy. Our bodies and brains are built to engage in our daily activities without thinking. We expend as little energy as possible so as to conserve it for when we might need it (think any fight or flight scenario). When we do things even a little differently, even for example, brushing our teeth after washing our face when we usually do it the other way around, we get a little zing of energy, bringing us back to the moment because we suddenly have to concentrate on something that usually comes effortlessly.

  8. Niles G. Jeran says:

    “So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservatism, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more dangerous to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future. The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure.*The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.”

    This speaks to what James is saying about the importance of new experiences and how it is imperative we break from routine and “habit”. This experiment is one that should be expanded upon and applied to all aspects of our lives. A man who finds himself in routine and monotony is similar to a wild animal being captured and caged. Their rogue and wild nature is slowly drained and their existence becomes meaningless. The only difference, in this case, is that man has a chance to free himself.

    • Nate says:

      Thanks Niles! I’m curious, for you, what has shifted as you have experimented with one daring act a day. Keep me posted.

    • Devon Walker says:

      Niles,
      Where is that quote from?

      To your comment above:

      “This experiment is one that should be expanded upon and applied to all aspects of our lives. A man who finds himself in routine and monotony is similar to a wild animal being captured and caged. Their rogue and wild nature is slowly drained and their existence becomes meaningless. The only difference, in this case, is that man has a chance to free himself.”

      I question. To what extremity should our non conformity be pushed? What do you mean by all aspects of our lives? Is it not true, that a man who finds himself in routine, and a man who finds himself in monotony, are not necessarily the same man?

      I will agree that monotony inevitably leads to meaninglessness. But routine is a different matter. As Dara points out “the brain and body have adapted and evolved to conserve energy.” In evolutionary terms this is so we can fight and flee. But, as I pointed out in my first comment, society seems to be outdated in being structured around a motive that is no longer relevant. (we no longer have to routinely be afraid of not surviving the day). Thus we are correct in advocating for some sort of break in habituation. To what degree?

      Dara’s example of washing your face before your teeth or vice versa is far different from the initiative implied by saying, “in reality nothing is more dangerous to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future.” Imagine someone who has lived a life with an aversion to routine (because of the monotony therein or other reasons), but in his pursuits of the intellect he struggles to succeed because of a lack of discipline which is the result of his lifestyle. He may have never learned good study habits, writing techniques, or the social competency required to become the man he wishes to become. That is not freedom, its prison.

      Judging from the discussion, it actually seems that James is reacting to a life of extreme habituation (what that means remains to be stated). We should not ignore the fact those who “will not take the initiative to change their situation” may in fact have already developed a very sophisticated and rewarding life, through habituation.

      Routine, establishing it, and following through, is necessary for us to be highly developed thinkers, writers, speakers, and athletes. I would go as far as to say, with irony, that we could not even be discussing such things at this level of awareness without a great deal of development and training (which is almost completely based on routine). Would Nate have had the initiative and motivation to begin this project without first honing his mind (through years of routine and training) to a certain level of intellect? Or take it to a further extreme. How many great presidents would have been elected had he not first learned dental hygiene? (Namely the routine of brushing one’s teeth one or more times a day.)

      Perhaps we are reacting to routine and habituation in general when we should be reacting to specific routines and habits. Meaning an examination of a sort of balance exhibited (or not) in our individual repertoire of habits and routines.

      Is not James endorsing the creation of a habit of breaking habits? How long before that habit becomes just as destructive and as the habits it breaks? The discussion should revolve around answering these questions. No? What do you guys think?

  9. Eileen says:

    Nate! Cool blog! My dad told me about it – I’m excited to follow your adventures.

    I had the same questions as Devon when I read this experiment – specifically, what is the value of deconstructing our habits, particularly when (as you and Devon have noted), certain habits have so much value (efficiency / advancement).

    It does seem like the exercise is about more than just picking something random that we don’t want to do. There are a lot of things I could do that would be a disruption of habit (e.g. tickle my boss – something that I could do for no other reason than because I reeeeally don’t want to). It would make me (and others) uncomfortable, would accelerate my heart rate (due to jeopardization of job security, which in this market, is no joke), and would probably make me hyper-aware, due to the progression of un-routine events that would follow, starting with the rare problem of having to explain to my boss that Nate Klemp at [contact info here] told me to tickle him. But doing so seems like the wrong kind of daring.

    There’s been value in each of the 3 things in the update video – you’ve done 2 ‘x-treme’ activities by exposing yourself to the elements, which gave you a rush, and one socially/culturally uncomfortable activity by immersing yourself in suburban retail, which expanded your awareness of an element of other people’s lives that you don’t prefer. So there’s some calculation of value (or at least lack of harm) before leaping in. Without it, maybe this altered state of awareness doesn’t necessarily lead to better habits.

    It’s interesting to me that hanging out in Wal-Mart was so much harder for you than experiencing the cold. Perhaps it’s because emotional/mental off-roading deals with habits that are closely linked with a person’s identity. As someone who was not raised with religion at all, I’ve actually gone skydiving 5x more times than I’ve gone to church. The latter activity required me to challenge a lifetime of living as someone who doesn’t go to church, and get myself in a mindset to go, listen, and be receptive to the sermon. In comparison, chucking oneself out of a plane is relatively simple — it was easier to make a “habit” of the thrill of skydiving than of going to church.

    Does going in to Wal-Mart just to hang out and kill time reinforce a mental habit that Wal-Mart is unpleasant by not directly challenging the notions that make it unpleasant in the first place? I think I know how you feel about big evil corporations, but it also sounds like you plain hate shopping. I dare you to go actually SHOP at Wal-Mart for something you need or would use (instead of loiter and bring papers to read!). A lot of people lack the luxury to avoid Wal-Mart for their daily necessities. To really challenge the mental/social/(maybe economic?) barrier (which this is, since merely taking up space in Wal-Mart is (in my opinion) not a physical challenge), what if you put yourself in the shoes of someone who didn’t grow up as you did, or who doesn’t believe as you do.

    This discussion also reminds me of being encouraged to improvise. Having grown up playing classical music, it always made me feel like a donkey being prodded off a cliff. I guess you can’t get much more habitual than playing exactly what’s on the page, time and again. This week, I will attack improvisation again in earnest and try to get over my fear of the unwritten.

    • Nate says:

      Hey Eileen,

      This is really great stuff. You raise some great points. First, I think you are right that some uncomfortable or daring acts may provide more use-value than others in improving our capacity to shift out of bad-habits. Take the WalMart case (which, by the way, I hate being in not out of political reasons but because it’s both boring and overwhelming to be around so much stuff). For me, this was a perfect practice for becoming more at home with my own internal resistance to boredom and to being in uncomfortable environments. So while it was hard, I actually found it quite useful. If I can be present with that feeling of resistance in Walmart, then I am improving my capacity to be present with resistance more generally.

      That said, I think there is a value in almost any daring or uncomfortable act. Not because it helps us retrain any specific habit, but because it helps us become more comfortable with discomfort (and James would say this is the very skill that helps us shift out of all habits). Of course, you don’t want to do anything too stupid. You don’t want to lose your job over an art of living experiment. But in my experience, doing smoe of these smaller acts — even random ones — has some really interesting transformational effects.

      The other thing you noted that I find interesting is that daring acts are often easier to do than uncomfortable or awkward ones (i.e. for you, skydiving is easier than church). That was a surprise to me and the Walmart case definitely helped me see this.

      Thanks for your insightful thoughts!

  10. Adela Warner says:

    I believe that confronting discomfort is pushing yourself to be whole. It is about confronting your fears and insecurities and accepting that life is a challenge.
    I made a promise to myself and an oath to follow my truth and to believe in the positivity of the unknown. I work hard disciplining myself and from this, it is much easier for me to take care of myself. I can say no and also say YES and take risks much more frequently.
    In taking on uncomfortable situations it connects you more with yourself and you get to explore emotions and be with them, instead of unconsciously avoid. By finding comfort in discomfort the ‘hard’ things in life come with ease because you love and trust yourself to overcome all obstacles and GROW.
    Thank you for your blog and demonstrating how safe you are being vulnerable. You are an inspiration and it encourages me to grow my blog at Ade-LA.com and stay ALWAYS true to myself and listen to my heart.

    Following my truth, Adela

    • Nate Klemp says:

      Adela,
      Thanks so much for your comment. I’m super excited about your new blog. I hope that we can collaborate in continuing to explore new and more artful ways of living. I’m also really excited about your efforts to make discomfort more comfortable. That was the big hit for me this week––the transformation often involves moving through resistance and other forms of discomfort.

  11. Dara says:

    Nate-
    I’m wondering how your family reacted to this week-long experiment.

    • Nate Klemp says:

      Hey Dara,
      My family reacted with the usual mixture of ” what are you doing?” and ” oh, this is actually kind of interesting.” I guess this most strange moment was when I told my mother-in-law that I would be spending the day walking through the snow and hanging out at Walmart. “Really?” she said. ” What you need at Walmart?”
      “Nothing,” I said. “And that’s actually the whole point of it — to see what I learned from just being at Walmart.”

  12. Aubrey says:

    Looks like you are an expert in this field, Great post and keep up the great work, my buddy recommended me your blog.

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